Wednesday, February 28, 2007


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #13: Magazine Man--Year One

The spring of 1991 was one of the craziest seasons of my young adult life. I was living just outside Chicago in what had once been servant quarters at the top of a dilapidated old manse on Dempster. The rent was good and cheap, but it still emptied my pockets every month. To make ends meet, I was selling off some of my old sports cards (for a New England boy, I had an amazing numbers of Bears, Cubs, White Sox and Blackhawks cards, which commanded premium prices in the city), but even that didn't cover my ass, so I had been doing an odd variety of freelance jobs. I was writing business profiles at a hundred bucks a pop for a city magazine and I was a researcher for a man who specialized in writing travel guides which he sold to the organizers of medical conferences, and which were included in attendee welcome packets. When I say writing I really mean plagiarizing, though. My research work consisted of poring over all the big name travel guides and typing vast amounts of entries verbatim into a huge document that my boss would whittle down to form his guide. It was drudge work, not to mention unethical, but it paid 8 bucks an hour and I could do it from my tiny garret in my free time, which was usually the middle of the night.

I think it's safe to say I was never so financially desperate in my life, and this is coming from a man who used to stop at every rest area on the New York State Thruway to scrounge enough loose change from under the vending machines in order to pay the toll when he got home. Instead of getting a job after graduation, I had gone back to school, and while I had won a fellowship that covered my tuition, I still had to pay for my books, room and board, gas and trainfare into the city, where I worked everyday--without pay--for the school's news service as part of the graduate program I was in. I had a car loan to pay, and 30 days after I graduated from this program, all the student loans I'd accrued during my undergraduate years would come out of academic deferment.

I had no money in the bank, no financial fallback of any kind, not even the usual fallback nearly everyone of my generation had, which was my parents. While my dad had recently snagged a long-term well-paying job after some years of doing pick-up work through the union, all of their money was sunk into an 18th-century home they were in the process of restoring, and into a real estate business that my mom and two partners had started up. Unfortunately, the business was faltering and in the harsh economic climate of the early 90s, the bank that had extended them a line of credit was in panic mode and they called in the loan. In response to this, my mom's partners both declared bankruptcy, leaving my parents holding the bag. They were just barely able to assume the debt, but they certainly had nothing extra to send to me. Even my grandfather, who had sustained me so often by mailing me the occasional surprise check, was unable to help. Both he and my grandmother had just come through a winter of various health problems, not all of which was covered by their insurance. Plus, my brother was actively sponging off them in an attempt to keep his apartment and not have to move home (an attempt that ultimately failed).

I really needed a job. A real job, salary and benefits and everything. I had gone to the spring job fair at my school and had applied to every entry-level magazine position that had opened up since the beginning of the year, but I'd had no success. And in a few short weeks, I was going to have a real dilemma on my hands. I would have to decide whether to move back to New Hampshire, where there were no jobs to be had in my field, or whether to stay in Chicago, where there were certainly lots more opportunities, but where I couldn't afford to live for much longer. Not without a job, anyway. Catch-22, in spades.

Meanwhile, I was busting my ass on my final project--the equivalent of a thesis, if you will. I and several of my classmates were developing and publishing a magazine prototype which we hoped to sell to one of the city's publishing companies. It was just as demanding as any real job, except that instead of getting paid for our work, we were paying the school. It was a trade magazine focused on home-office professionals and in the course of putting the prototype together, I got to rub elbows with several of the school's more successful alums, who were on call to provide guidance and to get us a chance to present our prototype to their company.

A happy perk of this contact was that these alums would also pass along any new job openings at their company, and these openings were posted on the bulletin board in the computer lab where we were producing our prototype. I had taken advantage of every one of them, even though it meant applying to jobs I really didn't want. I wanted a job at a big consumer magazine, but Chicago is a town with lots of trade associations and therefore also a town with lots of publishers devoted to printing magazines or newsletters to serve those associations. Thus I found myself in the running for editorial jobs at magazines with names like Sewer Treatment Monthly, the Journal of International School Managers (a magazine that never referred to itself by its acronym, I can assure you), Meat Packing Industry, and many more.

The ironic thing was that I'd gone on so many job interviews that it was starting to become cost-prohibitive. I owned just one suit at the time, along with one white shirt and three ties, and no matter how careful I was, the suit would get so wrinkled that I would have to take it to the dry cleaners after every interview. Between dry-cleaning costs and gas to travel around Chicagoland on interviews, plus a fresh set of photocopied clips and resumes for every interview, I was fast reaching a crisis situation financially.

The Monday after my 23rd birthday was about the lowest point for me. With absolutely no one else to turn to, I had swallowed my pride and gone to my college's business office to request a loan from the student emergency fund. If I had been stuck in Timbuktu and needed money for a flight home, or had been arrested on a drunk-and-disorderly charge in the Wisconsin Dells and needed to make bail, no doubt they could have accommodated me. But that morning, the administrator of the fund told me in so many words that they didn't loan out money to students who couldn't stick to a budget and were hitting them up for beer money. It was a bitchy thing to say, but I was so humiliated at having to ask in the first place that I didn't have anything to say in response to that.

(You'll be pleased to know that I have since perfected my response, which I give any time the school has the temerity to call me up and ask for donations to assorted fundraising projects.)

So there I was, sitting in the computer lab that served as the editorial bullpen for our magazine prototype, stewing about what had happened, wondering if selling my remaining sports cards--only minor players left--would be enough to cover at least half my rent and keep me afloat for another two weeks. The faculty advisor to our project was delivering his weekly lecture, but I was only listening with half an ear.

Just then, our professor's administrative assistant poked her head in the class and looked at me. "Phone call," she mouthed. I felt a tingle up and down my spine. I had had my phone shut off a few weeks earlier--I couldn't afford it--and so had been using my professor's office number as my phone contact on my resume. This could only mean someone was calling me back about a job.

On numb legs, I clumsily excused myself from the computer lab and went out to the assistant's cubicle. She handed me the phone, then left to get a cup of coffee so I could have my privacy.

"Heyyuh MM! It's Z, from Asset Systems and Security. Remember me?"

I remembered the twanging, irritating nasally voice all too well. I had interviewed at Asset Systems and Security just 10 days earlier. As the title indicated, it was a trade magazine devoted to the security industry, covering all the latest news in security cameras, card access systems, security guard equipment, and much else of need to the average paranoid manager of corporate security. Mr. Z, the editor in chief, had been, I thought, one of my worst interviews. Z was a truculent type. The interview had been more like a one-sided argument during which the man seemed to delight in making me feel about two inches tall. Indeed, the only way I had managed to gain any kind of ground with him was by telling him how I met J.D. Salinger. And I had my reasons for telling him. Not just because I was desperate for a job.

"Heyyuh!" Z said again. "I was trying to call your references, but couldn't get any of them on the phone. So instead, I don't suppose you could give me J.D. Salinger's phone number? I'll call him!"

I demurred, of course. It's one thing to tell a good anecdote like meeting the most reclusive writer of his age, but quite another to invade the man's privacy by handing his contact info over to just anyone, especially to Z.

"Well, I'm kidding," he said abruptly, in case I had actually believed him. "In fact I called all of your references. I can't say I was terribly impressed with that travel guide editor. It didn't really sound like you did editorial work. Sounds like you were just a glorified secretary!" And then Z laughed, a braying donkey's laugh. "Hyyuhhh! Hyyuhhh! Hyuh-yuh-yuh!" As I would soon learn, Z wasn't all gruff and unrelenting. He could be funny too. As long as the fun was at your expense.

I waited for the laughing to die down, then said, "Well Mr. Z, I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about my resume or clips--"

"Oh please!" he said, suddenly gruff again. "Your resume was self-explanatory. Not like there was much information there that needed parsing. And the clips--well, I can't say that they show much flair for business writing."

At times like this, I thought it was just better to keep my mouth shut, so I did.

"But, well, the truth is, Asset Systems and Security is about to undergo a total redesign and I need someone who has some experience on a launch or a redesign, as well as someone who's young and stupid and can be easily molded to do what I want him to do, when I want him to do it."

He paused.

"And I figured it might as well be you," he said.

Gee, thanks a pantload, I thought. But still I kept silent.

Then Z said, "So what did you have in mind for a salary?"

What the hell? I thought. This guy is just going to put me on the spot and hope I underbid myself? So I said, "Well, your salary would do it, Mr. Z."

There was a long, deadly silence.

"You know what, MM?" he said, voice cold. "I'll make the jokes if that's all right with you, hmmm? Now, since you've rejected my kind offer to name your own salary, I'm going to offer you $22,000 a year to start."

I suddenly felt every muscle in my body relax--yep, even the sphincters. A job offer. Not that much money, considering. But…a real honest-to-God job offer.

"Well," I said. "Can I think about it?"

"No," he said flatly. "What would it take to get you to say yes today?'

"Twenty-six," I said almost immediately, not really knowing why I countered at that amount.

"Nope!" he snapped. "Too high. Goodbye!"

My heart leapt into my mouth for a second and I almost cried after Z to WAIT! when he started braying like a donkey again.

"Hyyuhhh! I was just playing with you. Okay, let's make it 25, with a bump to 26 in six months. Assuming I haven't fired you by then. Deal?" he asked.

I swayed there in the seat for a moment, trying to collect myself. With almost every fiber of my being, I knew that working for this man would lead to a lot of miserable days. But how could anything be more miserable than what I'd been feeling just before he called?

Plus, there was another reason for taking the job.

Her Lovely Self worked there.

"Deal," I said emphatically, picturing HLS's divine features as I spoke.

"All righty," Z said. "I'll send the paperwork out today. You start the week after you graduate." And then he hung up.

Head spinning, I staggered back into the classroom. Our professor, I soon discovered, had stopped lecturing the moment I walked out the door. Instead, he had propped the classroom door open so he and the students could hear every word.

"Well?" my professor asked, beaming. Every one of my classmates was staring at me. Suddenly, I felt very light, as though I was floating on air and a wave of joy and relief washed over me.

"I'M GONNA WORK FOR A.S.S.!" I roared.

And my classmates burst into a round of applause.

Those that weren't falling on the floor laughing, I mean...


Wonderful story, MM. You definitely had me laughing out loud. When I was in grad school in Chicago, we talked a lot about the trade magazine business, and no one else seemed to snicker like I did when they read off the names of some of those publications. None were as good as the "Journal of International School Managers," though.
Yay! A long entry and to be continued! Unlike some impatient folks on the internet - not your regulars, of course - I most enjoy it when a good writer takes the time to tell a story well and completely. Thank you for this pleasure and the pleasure to come.
Ah, and thus begins the storied path along the way to becoming the MM we know and love. Excellent tale, reminds me of the panic I experienced the first time I graduated college and went job-hunting, and the tremendous relief I felt when I got a job the week I graduated the second time around.
Ah the project...glad to see not much changed between the time you conquered it and I undertook it. Makes me wonder if the professor was the same...

My first job out of grad school was also destined to be a miserable one working for a total ass. But thankfully, things improved with time. Thanks for the great read!
That is a great story, congratulations for being so cool under fire.
That is a great story, congratulations for being so cool under fire.
Cool story, MM. My last boss was almost as annoying as this guy sounds like he turned out to be. Hey, at least the magazine's initials weren't S-E-X!
Your story reminds me that I'm one of those who writes for a trade publication - and for that matter, a trade I know nothing about and wonder why they are paying me to spit out 1200 words every 3 weeks. Maybe all that means is that someday I can be as cool as you, MM, and be a *real* writer :)
I loved this story!

Thank you for the enjoyable 'over my coffee' read this morning!
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